The most famous non-place in all of poetry, a location that really does exist, but in its literary incarnation only as one of those ‘places where a thought might grow’, to quote Mahon. Last week saw the centenary of Thomas’s most famous poem, conceived in a moment of heat and ennui, in that most common of situations – while the train had come to a complete halt for no apparent reason. It happens to all of us, and quite a few of us take out our notebooks and spend the non-hours composing poems, but not usually as striking as this. Although there was a good old-fashioned debate on Facebook about why (and if) we should still read Adlestrop, why (and if) it’s still valid 100 years later, I stand by my belief that it is one of the great poems of the last century.
Why??? This little exercise, conducted in the spirit of fun, made me consider ‘why’ again. Four poets – Jenny King, Pru Kitching, Marilyn Francis and Meg Cox – decided to ‘workshop’ Adlestrop and have come up with this ‘reduced’ version. The poets in question are all experienced and published, and have attended many workshops over the years, so they are all aware of the usual pitfalls when writing poems: removing cliché, redundancy, archaic diction and exaggeration. This generally makes for a stronger, tighter, better piece.
But not on this occasion. Although in workshops you are often told not to repeat the title in the opening lines, it is important that Thomas keeps saying the name, so that it becomes an incantation, in all its plain English dowdiness. He not only repeats the place, but also ‘the name’, because naming is one of the things we do in poems, one of the things we do when we are trying to commit something to memory; the poet might recognise that this is a significant moment, even if he doesn’t quite understand wholly why. Why is Adlestrop, the name (simply the name, and not the place – remember, Thomas never gets off the train, this is all he even knows of the place), important? This is what the poem will show us.
So our workshoppers would have admonished Thomas to not repeat the place, ‘the name’. They want him to say ‘one hot afternoon’ instead of ‘one afternoon / Of heat’, not to say ‘It was late June’, assuming that ‘hot’ will do the work of saying ‘summer’. This is where the line breaks come into their own, the narrative unravels more slowly: we know what time of day it is, and then we know it is hot, and then, as if he needs to remind himself (the poem is in the past tense, after all), he tells us what time of year it is. High summer. Also, ‘one afternoon / Of heat’ feels hotter to me than ‘one hot afternoon’, and ‘heat’ suggests other kinds of heat, perhaps passion, perhaps what’s going on in the rest of the world (now there’s a hint …). And it gets picked up in a rhyme with ‘steam’ in the next stanza. And the rhythm is better. The workshoppers also want our poet to lose ‘Unwontedly’, which to my mind might be the most important word in the poem. Without it, we don’t know that the train isn’t supposed to stop at Adlestrop, but in its important position, at the beginning of the line, it also suggests that there is no choice. As passengers on the train, they are stuck. They will stop at Adlestrop, whether they want to or not. It is an odd word choice, it does stick out, but that’s because Thomas wants us to notice it. It carries a further message: you can’t always get what you want, to quote the Stones.
Our workshoppers have actually made a grammatical error in the first line of the second stanza, as it should be ‘his’ and not ‘their’. Why is this line so long? Because it’s a moment extended, as if boredom can be measured. They rightly want to pare down adjectives, but ‘bare’ is one of those words that to my mind doesn’t just mean empty: it’s exposed, vulnerable, stripped down to its absolute essence. It emphasises its emptiness. All the people are gone. The inevitable question is where are they? Apart from the passengers on the train, the landscape Thomas is travelling in is completely devoid of people.
Because then what he does, because he is Edward Thomas, and cared deeply about such things, is he lets nature run riot. What is on the platform in place of people are the beautiful weeds and wild flowers of the English countryside. This list – willowherb, meadowsweet, haycocks – complete with the excited ‘And’s, is important. Nature will always be there when all else is abandoned (I wonder what Thomas would have made of the ecopoetry of the beginning of this century?). But then he makes a strange turn our workshoppers don’t care for, and for years has had me puzzled as well. The diction, which has been straightforward and fairly plain until now, becomes very nineteenth century: ‘No whit less still and lonely fair / Than the high cloudlets in the sky’. Our workshoppers quite rightly jump on this as ‘poetic’ (the worst crime I think in a poem is to be ‘poetic’). Thomas knows this. Why? He’s getting our attention (like the guy who cleared his throat a few lines back). This is how poets the generation before him wrote about nature. How can he, a modern poet at the beginning of the twentieth century, write about nature? Perhaps he hasn’t entirely worked it out. Or perhaps the point he’s making is that this place is not romantic, and not matter how beautiful your language, it will still be an empty train platform. Perhaps he is also saying that nature is what elevates us in times of despair, so he heightens his rhetoric to do so. If you dig into the lines, he is still making the same point – despite the beauty of this wild place, it is lonely (how else to get that word in, apart from pretend you’re a poet of a different age?). He is also lifting us up, into the sky, so he can bring in that blackbird.
Our workshoppers would have liked Thomas to end there, on the blackbird. They want him to delete the final three lines: ‘Close by, and round him, mistier, / Farther and farther, all the birds / Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire. ‘Can a sound be misty?’ They ask. Perhaps if it is being recalled in the haze of memory. ‘Exaggeration’, they claim. I agree. There is no way that Thomas would have heard this, the poem up until this point being a faithful account of what happened when the train stopped. If the poem stops here, then that’s all it is, a faithful account, but the final three lines are the epiphany. And here’s where the other fact comes in – the world is on the brink of war, and it’s as if Thomas and his fellow passengers are suspended in that moment, waiting to see what will come next. They are powerless to change destiny, as are we all. Thomas was held in a place stuck in time, and he knew the world was about to change beyond all recognition, not just because of the war, but because of progress, industry, the things a new century might bring that he couldn’t even imagine. He would never see those things of course, and it is true that with the hindsight of his death, not so long after writing this, it becomes a more moving poem.
Some of my students may be reading this and saying to themselves, hold on, you’re not practicing what you preach. And it’s true, in workshops I often give advice similar to the advice the four poets here are giving their absent workshop pal Thomas (who indeed, used to workshop his poems with Robert Frost, who could be a pretty tough critic). Their advice is not wrong, and applied to another poem, it would no doubt improve it. But it is also true that some poems just manage to break the ‘rules’ with impunity, and their poets get away with saying things that somehow in another setting just wouldn’t hold up. It is impossible to say how that works – it just does. Somehow the right words come together in the right arrangement and make something which is unbreakable. For me, that’s Adlestrop, perfect and strange, and still fresh, 100 years on.